Among The Graves At Thiaucourt

Among the sacred places on this earth, none are more so to me than a military cemetery, as I was reminded a few days ago on a visit to the American cemetery at Thiacourt, France.  There are more than 4,000 graves at Thiacourt, marked by soldierly rows of white marble markers and an impressive monument.  It is a place of peace, quiet, and sober reflection on the lives of the young men and women who rest there.

The graves at Thiacourt hold the remains of the dead from World War One, many of them killed in the nearby Battle of St. Mihiel.  It lasted for four violent days in September, 1918, near the end of the war, and marked the first major battle test of the American Expeditionary Force under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing.

It had been a European struggle since 1914, and by the time of St. Mihiel, the two warring sides were exhausted with the killing.  Their soldiers lived in filth and terror in their trenches, under constant artillery bombardment, and occasionally their generals would order them to attack across the ravaged landscape of No Man’s Land.  It accomplished little except slaughter.  Hundreds of thousands died in battles whose names are etched in history – The Somme, The Marne, Ypres, Gallipoli, Belleau Wood, Chateau Thierry – cut down by machine guns, blasted by cannons.  Thousands of others died from accidents and disease.  When the first American troops arrived in 1917, the war was a stalemate.

British and French generals had grave doubts about how the raw, untested American boys would perform in battle.  Their fears were unfounded.  More than 600,000 Doughboys attacked the German lines at St. Mihiel, and in that fierce fight and the ones than came after in the nearby Argonne Forest, they tipped the balance of the war.  Less than two months after St. Mihiel, Germany surrendered.  By then, 26,000 Americans had died.

The names on those granite markers at Thiaucourt tell moving stories about who those Americans were, and about the America they had left behind.  They are from every state, from cities and small towns, villages and farms – North Carolinians and Michiganders, Alabamians and New Yorkers.  I would love to know about their individual lives, and how they came together to cross an ocean and fight in America’s first foreign war.  As I walked among them, I remembered the words of a grizzled basic training sergeant in my own military experience.  He said, “When you’re in combat, you aren’t fighting for your parents or sweethearts back home, you aren’t fighting for national honor.  You’re fighting for the guy next to you in the foxhole, and you want more than anything not to let him down.”  In that respect, war – for all its unspeakable obscenity – is personal and intimate.

World War One was tragically unnecessary.  Europe stumbled into conflict in a series of bizarre and often pig-headed decisions by a few of the continent’s princes who then sent vast numbers of their young men and women to kill each other.  By the time it was over, 37 million people had died.  Even more tragically, the world was again engulfed by war only 20 years later. 

But I didn’t think about all that in the cemetery at Thiaucourt.  I thought about the people in those graves, who they were, where they came from, the all-too-short lives they lived.  And I thought about the ones who survived, who brought the scars of war –mental and physical – home with them to a nation that couldn’t begin to understand what they had been through.  A hundred years later, I hope that many of them, in their own individual ways, found some of the peace and quiet of Thiaucourt. 



The Wind Comes Sweepin' Down The Plain

Do you ever get a song in your head and can’t get it out?  It happened to me the other day -- not just a song, but an entire soundtrack.  I was doing a little yard work and stopped for a moment to appreciate what a nice day it was: a hint of Fall in the air, a cloudless blue sky, the sweet smell of newly-mown grass.  And there it was, that fine song from the Broadway musical Oklahoma!  Oh, what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day.  So I went about my chores with a light heart and a quick step and all of those wonderful Rodgers and Hammerstein songs from the musical bouncing around in my brain, like a ride in a surrey with the fringe on top.

I especially like the title song, which has the line, Ooooklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain.  Hearing that, I could picture myself on a wind-swept stretch of prairie where you could see forever, as far as your imagination could take you.  The song goes on to say, We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand!  It occurred to me what a great sense of pride the song conveys – the pride of living in a good place where you can put down roots and put your heart and soul into making a good life.  If the musical got it right, Oklahoma is a good place to live and a good state to be from.

When I get a train of thought going, it’s apt to take me all sorts of places, and this one took me to Dorsey Bascombe.  He’s a character in my novel Old Dogs and Children – a successful businessman and mayor of his small southern town.  On a business trip to New Orleans, he meets, falls in love with, woos, and eventually marries the lovely Elise.  It is a far cry from New Orleans society to small town life, and Elise never fits in, never feels at home.  Elise’s young daughter Bright – the heroine of my story – observes, She doesn’t belong here.

At one point Dorsey says, “When you choose a place, choose to live in it, you take from it and then you give part of yourself back.”  Dorsey does that.  He invests himself, his person and his resources, into the place where he lives, and does what he can to make it a better place.  Elise, tragically, cannot.

Place is important to me, both as a person and as a writer.  In the course of my life I have lived in a fair number of places, and I’ve tried to think of each of them as my home, to look for the things about them that make them unique and worth valuing, to invest some of myself in each of them.  That translates to my storytelling, where place is crucial.  My characters exist in a certain time and place and the where of their existence exerts a powerful influence on who they are and how they think and act.  Some, like Dorsey, belong there.  Others, like Elise, don’t.  The way they fit in, or don’t, is central to their story.

I’m embarked on a new story, and again, place is essential.  I have to understand the physicality and culture of it before I can truly get to know the people I have imagined to put there.  How they deal with the where says a lot about who they are and where they’re likely to lead me.

I’m grateful for that beautiful morning I experienced a few days ago, the words and music from Oklahoma! it triggered in my heart and soul, and for the reminder of what the whole concept of home should be and how it impacts our lives.  I’ll tell a better story because of it.


Some of the best advice for writers I’ve heard in a long time comes from the renowned playwright Israel Horovitz, writing in The Dramatist magazine.  Horvitz says, “Try staying at home.”  He doesn’t mean staying around the house all the time, he means using the life close at hand as the heart and soul of your stories.

Horvitz writes, “The language you grew up speaking in your hometown or homecity neighborhood is the language you know best….And the people around you growing up are probably the people you know best.  So your point of difference from all other writers is probably found in your ability to re-create those people you know so well, speaking a language you know so well.”

When I read that, I thought about the place where I grew up, the people I grew up around, and how I’ve used them over and over in my own storytelling.  Elba, Alabama is a small town by any standard – around 4,000 souls today, and about the same number when I was a child and youth in the 1950’s.  For me, it was just the right size – small enough that you could know just about everybody who lived there, and large enough that it had a variety of kinds of people, including enough oddballs to make it interesting.

Somewhere in my youth I became an observer.  I figured out that if I kept my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut (except for asking a lot of questions about people and place) I could get a pretty good notion of what makes human beings tick.  It was a small stage on which the same characters played out their lives over time, bumping up against each other, making sparks, making stories.  I worked at the local weekly newspaper, and one of my jobs was to write a column called “25 Years Ago In Elba,” in which I went through the back issues of the paper and pulled out items of interest.  It gave me a keen sense of the history of the place, how Elba and its folks got to where they were in the present day.

Years later, when I wrote my first novel, Home Fires Burning, I set it in a small southern town that physically looked a lot like Elba, clustered around a courthouse square, and peopled it with characters who were inspired by people I knew – a crusty old newspaper editor, his grandson with an overactive imagination.  I even used a couple of incidents from Elba’s history to flavor the business.  The colorful, colloquial language my characters used came right from the rhythm and indiosyncracies of speech I heard as a youth.  If I write good dialogue, it’s because I heard good dialogue.

Over time, as I’ve written other stories, I’ve gone back again and again to Elba’s well.  No matter the setting, no matter the characters, I’ve used and re-used those things about the human condition – warts and all – that I absorbed growing up, being a part of and observer of that small stage.  I am a simple fellow, a small-town kid and a storyteller, and most of who I am is a product of that dear small town.  In many ways, I never left.

I would say to young writers, as Israel Horovitz does, to try staying home.  In imagining characters and putting them in compelling situations, use what you know best.  It is rich and fertile ground, worth cultivating and nurturing to produce those crops we call good tales.

First, you have to be an observer.  You have to watch and listen, absorb the life around you, the way people move and talk, the rhythms and patterns of their lives.  And then use all of that in creating characters of your own who are unique because they are yours.

Just change the names to avoid litigation.


I doubt that Andrea Bocelli and Doc Watson ever met each other, but they sure had a lot in common, and not just blindness.  Both men saw things the rest of us don’t, and turned them into great music.

Arthel “Doc” Watson lost his sight before the age of one from an eye infection.  His parents taught him to work hard and take care of himself – and all of his life, he did.  He bought his first guitar with money he earned helping his brother chop down trees, and then he taught himself to play it.  By the time of his death at the age of the age of 89, he had won 7 Grammy awards and a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

Doc Watson.jpg

And what a lifetime it was.  He not only wrote and played and sang songs, he created a whole new style of guitar picking.  He had a world-wide legion of devoted fans who listened to his music and went to his concerts and were dazzled by his artistry and captivated by his genuine warmth.  He was a fine musician and a fine human being.

Andrea Bocelli.png

Andrea Bocelli, the superb Italian tenor, was born with poor eyesight and lost it entirely after an accident on a soccer field at age 12.  By then he had already fallen in love with music, learned to play the piano and other instruments, and at age 7 decided that his voice was the best of them.  At last count, his recordings have sold more than 150 million copies worldwide.  Bocelli, like Doc Watson, has a devoted following who appreciate not only the quality of his voice, but the passion he brings to the interpretation of great music.

I once heard Doc Watson say that losing his sight made his develop and rely on his other senses, especially his hearing.  He told of playing hide-and-seek with his brother, and being able to tell where the brother was by listening for the tiny sound of his movements and breathing.  He developed a keen ear for voices, and if he heard you once, he knew who you were.  Unquestionably, he brought all of that to his music.  He listened to fiddlers, took apart their technique in his head, and adapted it to his guitar.  It was unlike anything guitarists had ever heard, and the best of them adapted and built on his unique style.

Bocelli, with his keen ear, finds and uses the subtle nuances of his songs.  In an interview a couple of years ago, he talked about the value of silence.  “Even in the most beautiful music there are some silences, which are there so we can witness the importance of silence.  Silence is more important than ever, as life today is full of noise.”  Listen carefully to Bocelli sing, and you hear how beautifully he uses silence.  He appreciates that even more because his life is consumed with sound, not sight.

I thought of Doc Watson and Andrea Bocelli when I was speaking to a group of children about reading and imagination.  “Imagination,” I told them, “is what you see when your eyes are closed.”  It’s the pictures in your mind that are triggered by everything else in your world – what you see, hear, taste, feel.   And if we don’t have use of our eyes – like Bocelli and Watson – our imaginations are even more exquisitely cultivated by the senses we do have.  I believe those two wonderful musicians give something unique and special to those of us who admire them because they are using their imaginations to the fullest.  In this way, they see things others miss.

When I write my stories, I’m in a sense writing with my eyes closed.  I’ve entered the world of the characters I’ve imagined.  I can see and hear and touch them, watch them move about and bump up against each other and make sparks and a story.  My job then is to give them free rein, to be honest and faithful with them, and to trust them to lead me through the underbrush and find the path.

If I do that, things turn out fine.  And in a very small way, I get fleeting glimpses of what artists like Andrea Bocelli and Doc Watson see.  It’s beautiful.

The Astronaut Who Wouldn't Go Away

On the way to another tale, I found Ronald McNair.  I was doing some background work for a post on explorers and exploration when I read his compelling story, and it warrants its own treatment.

McNair, you may recall, was one of the 7 crew members who were killed when the rocket carrying the space shuttle Challenger blew up just after liftoff in January, 1986.  He was on the shuttle as what NASA called a “mission specialist,” in charge of several scientific experiments that were to be performed on the trip.  He never got to do that job, but when he died, he left an incredible and inspiring legacy of accomplishment.

Ron McNair was a true pioneer, and he started young.  He grew up in the 50’s in Lake City, South Carolina – a place and an era when racial segregation were both law and practice.  In the summer of 1959, when he was 9 years old, he went to the Lake City public library to borrow books.  The librarian refused to serve him, and young Ron refused to leave.  The police and his mother were called, and when the dust had settled, the librarian relented and he went home with the books.  The Lake City library is now named for him.

McNair was, in so many respects, an uncommon man and a brilliant student.  He earned a degree in engineering physics from North Carolina A&T University, then went on to a PhD in physics from MIT and a job as a physicist at a California research lab.  He became nationally recognized for his work in laser physics.

In 1978, NASA opened a competition for its astronaut program.  10,000 applied, and McNair was one of 35 selected.  He flew on Challenger in 1984, the second African-American to go into space.

But McNair’s passions went far beyond physics and space flight.  He played the saxophone and played it well, and he wanted to take his music into space.  He worked with a composer on a saxophone solo which was to become part of the composer’s upcoming album, and planned to record the solo during the 1986 Challenger mission.  The shuttle disaster prevented that, but I have to believe there’s a haunting saxophone solo somewhere out there amid all the cluttered noise of space.

If McNair were here to be interviewed today, looking back on a brilliant life in science, leavened with a love of music, I think he might harken back to that summer day in 1959 when he refused to leave the Lake City library without the books he wanted.  When I read about that, I thought about the college president I interviewed not long ago who told his students, “Don’t let anybody steal your dream.”  Ron McNair wouldn’t let anybody steal his.  He combined intelligence, curiosity and creativity with stubborn persistence.  It’s a pretty good recipe for success.

A host of posthumous honors have been heaped on McNair since his death – buildings named for him, scholarships established in his honor.  But I believe the one he would be proudest of is that Lake City library.  It stands as a simple but proud monument to – and a shining example of -- a kid who just wouldn’t go away.

Mike, Ron, Ferdinand and the Quest

With a good bit of attention focused on space in recent weeks – mainly about the New Horizons probe that has given us a new appreciation for the planet Pluto – I’ve been thinking about the broader idea of exploration, of mankind’s timeless yearning to find out what’s beyond the horizon.

My thoughts keep turning to two of my fellow Carolinians whose lives were cut short by that quest for the unknown, and to an historical figure whose name will be forever linked to the notion of exploration.

Mike Smith and Ron McNair were among the 7 crew members killed when the Challenger space shuttle blew up 73 seconds after launch on January 28, 1986.  Smith was the shuttle pilot, McNair was a mission specialist, in charge of scientific experiments on the craft. 

The shuttle disaster is seared in our memory.  There was a huge television audience for the launch because one of those on board was Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.  If you weren’t watching at the time, you’ve seen the video -- the horrific dawning realization that something was going wrong, and then the explosion that scattered flaming debris across the Atlantic.

The space shuttle program was put on hold for almost 3 years after Challenger while investigators pieced together what happened and NASA corrected design flaws.  In September, 1988 the shuttle Discovery lifted off on a successful mission.  There were some who thought the shuttle program should be scrapped, that human beings should stop trying to explore the hostile environment of space.  But the quest for the unknown prevailed, even through another shuttle accident in 2003 that took the lives of the Columbia crew.

Not long after Challenger, NASA launched an unmanned space probe to study Venus, the place in our solar system the most like earth.  They named it Magellan, after the 16th century explorer, and I thought it was a fitting name for a venture into uncharted territory.

The original Magellan left Spain with a small fleet in 1519, determined to reach the East Indies by sailing west.  That meant he had to find a route around the tip of South America.  He did, and it’s named the Strait of Magellan in his honor.  Magellan sailed on across the Pacific, becoming the first to navigate it from east to west.  It was a perilous voyage.  Magellan battled starvation, disease, mutiny, and warfare.  In the Philppines, he was killed in a battle with natives.  But his second-in-command sailed on, back to Spain, proving conclusively that the earth is round.

Ferdinand Magellan was a resourceful man, determined and often ruthless.  In the mold of all great explorers, he was consumed by curiosity – the insatiable hunger to know what’s beyond what we can see.  It’s an essential part of being human.  Were it not, we would all still be living, elbow-to-elbow, in the place where humanity began.  It is an essential part of people like Mike Smith and Ron McNair and Christa McAuliffe.  And it will go on, disasters or not, as long as we are unwilling to sit still.  We explore earth and sea and sky and space – and the mysterious inner worlds of subatomic particles and nanotechnology -- no matter what the risk, because it is there, beckoning to us.

There are impressive memorials to Mike Smith, in his hometown of Beaufort, North Carolina, and to Ron McNair, in Lake City, South Carolina.  But the most fitting memorial to people like them and Ferdinand Magellan, is that we carry on their work.  We just won’t give up.

We yearn to know the unknown, even when we put ourselves in peril.  Part of the thrill is in the discovery, but maybe the best part is the journey itself.

Be Careful With Ancestors

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my forebears.  We’ve just finished our first summer production of my Revolutionary War drama Liberty Mountain, a story about the settling of the southern colonies and their part in the winning of American independence.  Our 15 performances played to large and enthusiastic audiences in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and we’re already at work on the 2016 summer production.

Kings Mountain Battle.jpg

The centerpiece of Liberty Mountain is the 1780 Battle of Kings Mountain, where a fierce and determined band of Patriot frontiersmen defeated a larger, better-trained force of Loyalist militia.  Until that battle, the British were winning the war in the south.  But Kings Mountain turned the tide and led directly to the British surrender at Yorktown a year later.

I’ve long been interested in the Kings Mountain battle because one of my ancestors, Col. James Williams, was killed there.  He was, by reliable accounts, a brave warrior who led Patriot militia forces at a series of battles across Georgia and both Carolinas.  At Kings Mountain, his horse was shot out from under him as he led his troops up the mountainside, so he continued on foot until he was struck by a musket ball at the summit.  One account says that as he fell, he cried out, “For God’s sake, don’t give up the hill, boys!”  They did not.

Col. Williams and his exploits have long been part of my family’s lore, but until I got involved with Liberty Mountain, I didn’t know the details of the connection.   With the help of my friend Greg Payseur of the Broad River Genealogical Association, I’ve been able to trace the lineage back to Williams and several other ancestors who fought in the Revolution.

They’re all on my mother’s side of the family, the Coopers, some of whom migrated from England in the 1630’s to help found Philadelphia, then drifted south into the new frontier.  One of them, Fleet Cooper, set up shop in Sampson County, North Carolina where he became a committed rebel and a signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.  There are historians who doubt the “Meck Dec” actually existed, but Cooper family lore insists it did – that it preceded the better-known Declaration and was the first time colonists put pen to paper and declared independence from England.  It’s also known that the Crown put a price on Fleet Cooper’s head, so he must have done something audacious to rile up the King.

I’m enjoying getting to know more about those folks who preceded me – something of how they lived, the ideals they believed in.  And in writing Liberty Mountain and seeing a talented and committed cast and crew bring it to life on stage, I’m in a way re-creating those people and their time.

Now, anybody who’s delved into personal history knows that every family has its abundant share of rogues, renegades and black sheep.  I’m sure the Coopers are no exception, but I’ve also come across a passel of them on my father’s side, the Inmans. 

Those folks hail from upstate South Carolina.  There were Inmans who fought bravely in the Revolution, but then there was the other bunch.  Years ago I met a judge in Alabama who had been doing some genealogical research on his South Carolina ancestors, who came from the same area as mine.  He said, with something of a twinkle in his eye, “The records show that some of the Inmans were chased out of Spartanburg County in the early 1800’s for horse thievery.”  Oh well, you take the bitter with the sweet.

Where did the horse thieves go?  Into Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and beyond.  It was a wild and lawless frontier in those days, and it probably took folks like my renegades to tame it.

I relish both sides of my family tree, and find a checkered past quite useful.  When I act uprightly, I attribute some of it to the Coopers.  When I need to be ornery, I lean on the Inmans.  They both serve me well.

So yes, you have to be careful with ancestors.  They can be a source of pride or a darn good excuse.  I’m glad I have some of both.

For information on Liberty Mountain, visit

Resurrecting Pluto

I was on a plane 16 years ago, headed for Florida, when I read about the downsizing of Pluto, its demotion by pointy-headed astronomers to “minor planet” status.  Pluto was my favorite planet because it had a neat name, one that Walt Disney appropriated for the world’s most lovable cartoon dog.  And these science types wanted to say it wasn’t a planet at all, just a big ball of ice out there on the edge of our solar system?  How dare they.


So you can imagine how excited I and millions of other Pluto-lovers are by having our special planet (we don’t give up just because some pointy-heads say we should) in the spotlight these days, as NASA’s New Horizons space probe arrives at Pluto after a 9-year, 3-billion-mile journey.  Snapping pictures and collecting data.  Putting dear old Pluto in the spotlight, giving even the pointy-heads a new appreciation for this remote, intriguing piece of our universe.

When I think about Pluto these days, I also think about my seatmate on that flight to Florida years ago.  She was about 75, I guessed – petite, lively of eye and pleasant of manner, traveling from her home in Connecticut to visit friends in Florida.  It was January and she was happy to leave the snow and ice of Connecticut behind, as she had done for a month the last dozen years.

But this year, the trip was different.  It was the first time she had made it alone, because she had buried her husband a month before.  She was handling it well, and the friends in Florida were a big help.  They had told her, “You’ll never be homeless,” and I realized that meant a lot more than a place of physical shelter, especially now.  She would spend a few days with each of her Florida friends and then fly back to Connecticut, knowing that it was not her only home.

We talked for awhile, and I remember hoping that one day, if faced with similar circumstances, I could handle a loss with as much grace and that I would have friends somewhere who would make sure I was never homeless.

Across the aisle from me was a man about the same age as my seatmate, a woman seated next to him that appeared to be his wife.  He was impatient with her, grumpy and out of sorts in a sour, scrunched-faced way.  He had two Bloody Marys and drifted off to sleep, and she looked relieved.  I wished I could introduce her to my seatmate and they could steal away together for a month of Florida sun.

But of course the wife would never do such a thing.  Somehow she had put up with his grumpiness all these years and here in the twilight she wasn’t likely to exchange the known for the unknown.  So she would probably keep putting up with him, but maybe kick him in the shins every once in awhile.  Someday, odds were, she would lose him, and miss him, grumpiness and all.

I went back to my newspaper and re-read the story about the downsizing of Pluto and pondered for awhile on the nature of loss and its aftermath.  I decided that I could never again think of our solar system in the same way, and it made me sad that poor little Pluto didn’t have anything like friends in Florida to ease the pain.  I thought of those astronomers downsizing Pluto as a bunch of old grumps, too – in need of a kick in the shins.

But now, 16 years later, with New Horizons putting my favorite planet in the news again, I’m happy.  For me and lots of other folks, Pluto will always be a planet – maybe the runt of the litter, but part of the litter, nonetheless.  I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for runts.


The 100 Funniest Movies Ever

The Writers Guild of America, the organization that represents screen and television writers, is putting together a poll of the 100 funniest movies of all time.  They’ve asked their members to each submit a list of 15 films, and they’ll tally the votes to come up with the list of 100.

My nominees (in no particular order):

The Pink Panther

A Shot In The Dark

The Graduate

The Producers

Caddy Shack

Weekend At Bernie’s

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Broadcast News

Driving Miss Daisy

The Long, Long Trailer

Home Alone

My Cousin Vinny

Mrs. Doubtfire

The Birdcage


What makes a movie funny?  To me, the bottom line is great comedic acting.  I love watching a talented actor who can take a mildly-funny line of dialogue and make it into something uproarious, using facial expression, body language, voice inflection, and – most importantly – timing.

The great comedians all share the quality of having an exquisite sense of when to speak and when to shut up.  A great comedian know that a moment of silence, in exactly the right place, speaks volumes.  Peter Sellers, the star of those wildly funny Inspector Clouseau films (including the two on my list) was a master of all of the comedic qualities, but especially timing.

What kind of funny movies are not on my list?  Those that are mean-spirited in their making fun, and those in which the only ingredient is stupid people doing truly stupid things.  If I laugh, and then immediately feel guilty about laughing, I know I’ve just witnessed bad humor.

Peter Sellers.jpg

The movies on my list aren’t unreservedly funny.  They contain elements of drama, conflict, even sorrow.  But the dark places make the humorous ones stand out and give the characters depth and texture.  One of my favorites, Driving Miss Daisy, is a perfect example.  Daisy Werthen is pushing back hard against the ravages of advancing age, and the humor in her combat touches something deep in us.

You’ll have your own list of funny movies, and your list is as good as mine.  We’ll see what my fellow Writers Guild members come up with, and then I’ll share the poll of the 100 funniest.

In Harm's Way In Faraway Places

Leslie Williams passed away a few days ago.  He was 95 years old, and one of the few living members of a famous World War Two command known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

It was a bold and controversial experiment the American military embarked on in 1939.  With war clouds gathering, in a day when the military and most of American society was racially segregated, Congress approved funds to recruit and train African-Americans as pilots.  Leslie Williams was among the first to join.  He and his fellow cadets learned to fly while they attended classes at nearby Tuskegee Institute.  The best-known unit that came out of Tuskegee was the 332nd Fighter Group.  They painted the tails of their P47’s and P51’s red and gained fame as the “Red Tails,” distinguishing themselves in combat in the skies over Europe.   Their exploits have been chronicled in books and movies.

I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – partly because of their distinguished military record, partly because of the racial discrimination they had to overcome, and deal with constantly, to earn the right to get in those cockpits.  Leslie Williams, in an interview a few years ago, said, “In those days, no one had to salute blacks, but we could be court-martialed if we didn’t salute a white officer.  The discrimination was bad.”  But Williams and his fellow officers endured all that and prevailed. 

In a much broader sense, I’m intrigued by that entire generation of young American men and women who lived through Depression and brought their nation through a conflict of staggering proportions.  After World War Two, everything was different.  Those young Americans changed the world, and the world changed them.

I knew some of them intimately.  My father and three uncles served – two pilots, a soldier, a sailor.  In the post-war years, when I was a child and youth, they spoke sometimes in passing of their experiences – never of the moments in combats when they were in grave peril, but of the experience of being uprooted from a small Alabama town and sent to the ends of the globe.  In what they said, the memorabilia they brought back, in the letters to and from wives and girlfriends, I could feel their homesickness, their wonder at the places where they were stationed – England, France, Germany, Burma, China.  I came to realize that the war had altered them irrevocably in ways I could only glimpse and suspect.

I have taken liberally from those men’s war experience in my writing.  My first novel, Home Fires Burning, is set in a small southern town during the last year of the war – a story of the folks who stayed behind and supported the war effort, and the young men who came back, profoundly changed, to try to bring some order to their lives – to settle into jobs and raising families and being part of a community.

More importantly, what I sensed about my father and uncles and their time at war let me know that in all of us, there are things below the surface, rarely revealed, secrets of the heart, that nevertheless shape who we are and how we look at the world in vital ways.  It’s that life-below-the-surface thing, the subtext, the rough edges, that interests me most when I imagine characters.  As a writer, I can peer into my characters’ souls and feel things that are not obvious, but which are essential.

Leslie Williams survived the war and returned to his native California to become a successful businessman, and at age 60, finish law school and begin a 20-year legal career.  My father and uncles settled in my southern town and made lives in business and public service.  They were quiet lives, but they were meaningful lives.  They had gone in harm’s way in faraway places and come home to shape my own life.  I am forever in their debt.

Keeping An Open Mind

            My young friend will be going off to college this Fall, and I have but one piece of advice for him: Keep An Open Mind.

            Starting college is an exciting time, and I well remember that experience of my own in 1961.  I grew up in a small Alabama town of 4,000, and when I began my college career at the University of Alabama, the student body was double that.  My high school graduating class had 61 members; my freshman Psychology class had four times that many students.  Once I got used to the sheer size of things, it dawned on me that size was the least of the differences from my high school  years.  The big difference was in ideas.

            Take that Psychology class.  What I knew of human nature at that point, I had learned from observing the people around me in that small town – mostly good folks, a few not-so-good, a handful of oddballs.  But a semester of Psychology boggled my mind with the complexity of human experience, behavior, emotion.  Good golly, we were this incredible stew of creation, nature and nurture, pulled and tugged on by inner and outer forces that even so-called experts only vaguely understood.

            I believe I made a decent grade in that class, but the grade wasn’t the important thing.  It was the experience of having my young, unformed mind opened to ideas about the human enigma.  That, as much as anything, started me on a path toward becoming a storyteller, imagining characters with texture and complexities and rough edges, setting them loose in a time and place, confronting them with dilemmas to see what they would do, say and think.  It opened me to the notion of human possibility – and that, more than anything, is the essence of fiction writing.

            That notion of possibility served me well as a journalist, where I spent most of my years after college.  A character in one of my novels gives his definition of a conservative and a liberal.  “A conservative,” he says, “is a fellow who has made up his mind about almost everything.  And a liberal is a fellow who has made up his mind about almost nothing.”  A journalist, in order to be a fair and balanced and accurate as possible, has to keep an open mind.  If you approach a story with a lot of preconceived ideas, you’ve got blinders on.  You don’t ask the right questions, you don’t give people a fair shake.  So by this definition, a journalist has to be a liberal, and that has absolutely nothing to do with political persuasion.

            I thought about this business of keeping an open mind when I read a piece by John F. Burns, who recently retired after 44 years as a Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent for the New York Times.  Burns went just about everywhere, reporting on the beauty and bestiality of our chaotic world.  What he brought back from those years, he writes, “was an abiding revulsion for ideology.  In all its guises.”  Those guises included Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia on the left, apartheid South Africa and Afghanistan’s Taliban on the right.  What made them alike was a brutal insistence on rigid ideology of one stripe or another.  Think and act like I insist, or I will kill you.  And they killed people by the millions.

            What disturbs Burns about coming home after 44 years is seeing and hearing the loyalists of particular political creeds – left or right – insisting on the same kind of rigid, lock-step thinking that he witnessed in other parts of the world.  “Our rights to think and speak freely have been won at great cost,” he writes, “and we abuse them at our peril.

            So back to my young friend going to college.  He will be exposed to a far wider world of people and thought than I was in 1961.  My university wasn’t even integrated until 1963.  Today’s colleges (most of them) are great melting pots of people from all over the world, with a rich stew of cultures and customs and ideas.  I hope my young friend will reach out to all that.  It will enrich his life in ways he may not realize until later, but it will make him a better man, a more rigorous thinker, a better citizen of the world.  I envy him.

Attack of the Wild Golfs

My friend John and I are thinking about writing a book entitled “Golf As Insanity.”  The subtitle would be either “That Elegantly Maddening Game” or “That Maddeningly Elegant Game.”  Either would be appropriate.  There are few games we know of that are both as elegant and maddening as golf, and that’s why we look upon the playing of said game as a form of insanity.

I say elegant, because there are few things more pristinely beautiful than the flight of a small white ball as it cleaves laser-straight through a Carolina blue sky and settles exquisitely on a green next to the pin.  And I say maddening because there are few things that will try one’s soul more profoundly than one’s repeated failed attempts to extract a little white ball from a sand trap.

Let me tell you about sand traps.  Golf instructors, who make good livings pretending that we amateur golfers actually have a glimmer of hope of playing the game decently, admonish us to refer to those bottomless pits of white misery as bunkers.  But the way my friend John and I play bunkers, they are sand traps.

My friend John is a woeful example of what can go wrong in a sand trap.  He once wagered on a round of golf with a good friend – no money involved, but whoever lost would mow the other guy’s lawn.  John was leading by 14 strokes as he approached the 17th hole, a par 3.  He put his tee shot in a small, unassuming sand trap next to the green.  17 strokes later, he coaxed the ball out of the sand trap.  The other guy’s lawn got a nice grooming, and the owners of the golf course presented my friend John with a nice plaque naming the sand trap in his honor.  John and I will repeat this story in our book about golf as insanity.

But sand traps are not the most insidious hazard my friend John and I encounter on a golf course.  Sand traps are insignificant compared to the wild golf, a rodent-like animal that lurks on the edges of fairways and greens.  A wild golf is lightning fast, so fast that one has never been photographed, and can only be seen as a blur of motion out of the corner of a golfer’s eye.  If a golfer hits a slightly-errant tee shot that lands somewhere near the edge of a wooded area, a wild golf will race out, grab the ball, and fling it into deep woods.  The same applies to balls that land near a body of water.  You can hear the faint cry of the miserable creature: “Errant!  Errant!”  My friend John and I have experienced this many times.

Wild golfs also burrow deep into sand traps.  If a golfer hits a shot that lands anywhere near the sand trap, the wild golf will dash from its hiding place, grab the ball, and drag it into the sand trap, burying it deep enough that only a dime-sized portion of the ball peeks out.  My friend John and I have also experienced this many times.


And then there are the wild golfs that lurk just under the seemingly-benign surface of greens.  The unsuspecting golfer lines up his putt and strokes the ball toward the hole.  The lurking wild golf, upon hearing the ball rolling overhead, will arch his back just enough to make a tiny alteration to the surface of the green that will cause the ball to veer slightly off-line and miss the cup by a sixteenth of an inch.  My friend John and I have lost count of the times we have experienced this.

John and I were heartened not long ago to read of the 103-year-old golfer in Florida who recorded the eighth hole-in-one of his career.  His first ace came 75 years ago, in 1939.  That he is still playing golf at the age of 103 is remarkable, but that’s not why my friend John and I are hoping to interview him for our book.  This guy either plays golf courses with no sand traps, or he has discovered a way to tame the wild golf.  Either makes him a hero, and when we reveal his secrets, we will all get rich and build our own golf course.  Guess what it will not have. 

Writers Are Dull People, And For Good Reason

Back a few years ago, I quit my job, a speaking role on television.  It was a great job and I worked with great people, but I had started scribbling stories, and I thought I might be able to make a living at what  I had discovered was my passion.  So I quit.

When I was doing that television job, I had a routine.  I worked at the station from 3:00pm until midnight.  So every morning I would rise, eat a bite of breakfast, and go to my computer.  It worked.  I found that if I could manage an hour or two of quiet, focused work every morning, the pages of my scribbling piled up and before long, I had a story. 

Without a regular job to go to five days a week, I had a great deal of extra time.  I thought, “Gee, I can do all of those things that I didn’t have time to do when I had a regular job!”  And for the first year, I tried.  It was an embarrassment of riches.  I dashed here and there, willy and nilly.  And at the end of that first year I realized that I had made myself a bit nuts.  My routine had collapsed.  I was so busy doing all the other stuff, I wasn’t doing what I quit my job to do.  Since then, I’ve worked hard to re-establish my routine.

I thought about all that the other day when I read about Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work.  Currey believes that having a routine is crucial to any kind of creativity, and he gives some good examples:

There is my favorite artist, Georgia O’Keefe.  She would rise every day at dawn and take a brisk stroll.  She always carried a sturdy walking stick because there were rattlesnakes in her New Mexico neighborhood.  I suppose keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes will do wonders to keep you focused while you stride along.  After the walk and a bit of breakfast, she would head to her studio.  She didn’t let the other details of her life get in the way of her painting.  She managed it all with an unwavering routine.

It would be hard to imagine a more successful classical composer than Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.  His routine was similar to O’Keefe’s.  He rose early, ate breakfast, and went to his creative work.  He would take his lunch, then a walk, and finally another session with his music.

For those two successful creators, and many others, routine is key.  And it’s interesting to me that O’Keefe and Tchaikovsky included a daily walk.  Ideas can sneak up on us when we least expect them, often when we’re engaged in some relatively mindless activity such as putting one foot in front of the other, being quiet, enjoying the outdoors.

I think kids benefit from routine.  Our household lives are often chaotic, with young and old dashing in and out, the home just a momentary waystation enroute to the next activity.  But parents find that when they establish routines, and get the young folks to settle into them, things get calmer for everybody.  Okay, darlings: you can count on this thing happening at this time every day.  Kids don’t do well with uncertainty, and routine works against that.

We grownups would benefit from more routine.  What are the things that are really important in our lives?  And how can we arrange the rest so that we can get at the important stuff?  Routine helps separate wheat from chaff.

I’ve heard it said that successful writers, at heart, are incredibly dull people because they want to do the same thing at the same time every day.  But that’s the way the work gets done.  A good writer arranges life so that creative time is carved out of the day and it’s sacrosanct.  If having a routine makes you dull, maybe we should all be a little more dull.

William Faulkner once said, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ’Ode On A Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”  It was a crude way of putting it, but Faulkner had his priorities straight.  He didn’t let old ladies or anything else get in the way of his writing.  And I’ll bet money he had a good routine.

What Is Winter For, Anyway?

In my novel The Governor’s Lady, Mickey Spainhour is suffering from congestive heart failure and figures she’s not long for this world.  Her son-in-law Pickett is running for President.  In January Mickey says, “I hope I make it to March.  I would hate to die in February.  It’s a miserable month.  If Pickett gets to be President, I want him to outlaw February.”  Mickey’s daughter Cooper, who has just taken office as Governor of the state, says, “I doubt Pickett will waste a minute on February.”

Well, he should.  Let me hasten to associate myself with Mickey’s opinion of February.  It can be, often is, a miserable – nay, a wretched – month.  Just ask Boston.  If I get to be President, I will outlaw February by Executive Order.

But…fair-minded fellow that I am, I admit that February does have one redeeming characteristic: Valentine’s Day, when my heart is full to bursting with thoughts of my own true love.  So I would move Valentine’s Day to March.  February also has the Chinese New Year, but the Chinese can deal with February as they please.

One thing about winter in the Carolinas, where I live, is that it may grab you by the throat, but not for long.  Even in abominable February, we always have a mild and pleasant day when winter loosens its grip and gives us some hope that cold and gloom are not a permanent state of affairs.  Most of our winters here are mild, and maybe we don’t appreciate them enough.  Even February.

What is winter for, anyway?  It makes us hunker down, gives us grim looks and sniffles and a bad outlook on life.  On the surface, winter seems to have little redeeming social value.  But perhaps Mother Nature knows what she is doing when she gives us winter.  Maybe she intends it as a time to just be quiet and wait and listen to the secrets locked deep in our hearts, to discover anew who we are and where we’re bound.

We modern humans are unaccustomed to silence.  We surround ourselves with recorded noise and idle chatter.  Much of our daily existence is filled, as the Bard said, “with sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

But Nature is smart enough to spend the winter in quiet contemplation.  Deep in the icy ground, or under the awesome silence of snow, animal and seed are locked in winter’s thrall, listening to the secret ticking of the great clock of the universe.  The hands move slowly, as nature’s creations regenerate and replenish, gathering strength for the noisy explosion of spring.  Nature knows when to dash about madly and when to bide her time, waiting and listening.

As I write this, the wind is howling outside, rattling the shutters and shaking the bare limbs of the trees.  The temperature will dip to 20 degrees tonight, even colder tomorrow.  But I am hunkered down inside – some peaceful hours at my desk working on a new book.  Soft music on the stereo, a cup of hot tea, my imagination.  A time of discovery, possibility, serendipity.  And Valentine’s Day is just ahead, hearts and flowers, my own true love.

Okay, maybe February is okay.  But just.  Still, like Mickey Spainhour, I hope I make it to March.  I’ll leave it to you to figure out if she does.

Where Has The Laughter Gone?

Several years back, when I was going through a challenging time, a wise person gave me an unusual piece of advice: “Watch Comedy Central.”  I did, I laughed a lot, and I felt a lot better.  It was good medicine, good therapy.  It still is.  I have satellite radio in my car, and one of the stations I listen to often is “Laugh USA.”  Again, good stuff for the soul and the belly.

Laughter can at times be vicious and demeaning – jokes told at someone else’s expense, a put-down, a mean-spirited slam.  Those jokes get laughs, but they leave me feeling a bit demeaned myself, and guilty.  My favorite comedians are those who laugh at themselves, who tell jokes at their own expense, celebrating their own imperfect lives.  And that’s why one of my all-time favorites is the late Rodney Dangerfield, whose signature line was, “I don’t get no respect.”  A couple of examples:

“My wife was afraid of the dark, saw me naked, and now she’s afraid of the light!”

“When I get in an elevator, the operator takes one look and says, ‘Basement?’”

And in 2004, entering a Los Angeles hospital for heart valve surgery, he said, “If things go right I’ll be there about a week, and if things don’t go right, I’ll be there about an hour and a half.”  He lapsed into a coma after the operation and never recovered.  I think he would have found it profoundly funny.

Rodney, despite great success as a comedian, suffered bouts of deep depression and low self-esteem.  But his self-deprecating humor wasn’t the work of a man wallowing in all that, it was both an escape from grim reality and a way of facing his demons and laughing at them.

I’ve thought about Rodney Dangerfield a good bit in recent days as I’ve watched events unfold in places across our globe – grim reality that has the potential of making us both fearful and cynical.  There doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about these days.  And I’ve thought that folks who perpetrate violence, who create havoc and heartbreak by taking lives, take themselves and their credos so incredibly seriously that they have absolutely no capacity for laughter, especially about themselves.  Those terrorists in Paris, in fact, wanted to kill laughter.  I hope we don’t let them.

Lest it seem that the assault on laughter is only the work of terrorists, consider our political systems – here and elsewhere.  People of every conceivable stripe who hold high office are by and large humorless people, unremittingly grim about their ideologies, bent on demonizing anyone who disagrees.  How long has it been since you’ve seen a member of Congress laugh?  I think if we can find occasions to laugh at ourselves, that means we realize we aren’t perfect, and that somebody we disagree with might have an idea worth considering.  It also means we've found some joy in what we believe.

I love using humor in my storytelling.  If I’m sitting in the audience at a performance of one of my plays, my greatest joy is when one of my lines provokes laughter.  I believe in humor leavening drama and – lest the story lapse into slapstick – drama leavening humor.  The writers I admire the most are those who have an exquisite balance of both drama and humor in their work.

I wish we had more laughter.  I wish we had more Rodney Dangerfields.  If we gave ourselves a little less respect and a little more humor, we might be better off.


The Danger of Saying Too Much

In my previous life as a television person I was fortunate to work with people with far more experience and wisdom than I, and I tried to learn from them.  Two in particular stand out because of the way they approached their jobs.

Clyde McLean was the long-time weatherman at Charlotte’s WBTV.  He wasn’t a trained meteorologist, he was an announcer who did the weather at 6:00pm, but his many years observing and reporting on the weather in the Carolinas made him vastly knowledgeable.  His trick was, he didn’t burden the audience with that vast knowledge.

Clyde told the story of the elementary-age kid who had to do a report for class on weather.  He went to his father.  “Dad, what’s weather?”  Dad replied, “Go ask your mother.”  And the kid said, “I don’t want to know that much about weather.”  Clyde took the same approach.  He figured if you tuned in at six o’clock, you wanted to know the basics.  Rain or shine, sleet or snow, fair or foul?  Clyde worked in the days before fancy computer-generated graphics; he physically drew on a big map with a marker, showing you troughs and fronts, high and low pressures.  But he never over-did it.  He stuck to the basics.  Here’s what it looks like tomorrow, and the next few days after that.

Clyde knew that weather forecasting, especially in the years before a lot of satellite stuff and computer modeling, was an approximate thing.  He loved to tell the story of the winter night when he predicted partly cloudy skies for the next day, only to get a morning call from a fellow who said, “I’ve got six inches of partly cloudy in my front yard.”

The other colleague who comes to mind in this regard is Jim Thacker, the best television sportscaster I’ve ever been around.  Jim not only anchored the sports desk for WBTV, he was – along with superb analyst Billy Packer – the play-by-play man for ACC basketball, and a regular on CBS-TV’s coverage of pro golf, including the Masters Tournament.  I once sat in the tower with Jim as he worked a tournament in.  He was first of all meticulously prepared.  He had constantly-updated note cards on every PGA player.  He knew the course like the back of his hand.  But his genius, I think, was in knowing what not to say.  Jim told me, “Never tell the viewer something they can see for themselves.”  Like Clyde McLean, he never over-did it.

I’ve been thinking about Clyde and Jim as I’ve watched college football bowl games the past few days, and thought how the announcers violate their principles ad nauseum.  The play-by-play guy tells us everything we can see for ourselves, and the analyst rattles on about the intricacies of the game that add nothing to our enjoyment of the action.  They just can’t seem to shut up.  And it’s not just in college football.  A few announcing teams across American sport get it right – i.e. Jim Nantz and his crew at the Masters – most don’t.  Thank goodness for mute buttons on our remotes.

I try to apply Clyde and Jim’s wisdom when I write.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that less is more.  Words are the waves on which a story rides, and if I pile on too many words, the waves get choppy, and pretty soon you’re more concerned with the chop than the story.  My job is to give you a few hopefully well-chosen words to trigger your imagination, and let you become a partner in the story-telling.  Like Clyde, I need to keep the details at a minimum; like Jim, I need to let you see for yourself.  I need to know when to just shut up.

Another role model is Ernest Hemingway, who once said, “I know the twenty-five cent words, therefore I can use the nickel words.”  I like nickel words, and as few of them as absolutely necessary.  I wish sports announcers did too.

My All Time Favorite True Christmas Story

They are a vanload of pilgrims, climbing through the swirling snow of a late December night from the Denver airport up toward ski country – a family from Missouri, another from North Carolina, a couple of college kids headed home for the holidays.  And the Guitar Man.


He wears jeans and a faded leather jacket.  His luggage consists of a duffel bag and a battered guitar case – a six-stringed Martin or Gibson probably, wood worn bare by the brushing wings of a million notes and chords.  He’s in his late twenties and he has a nice smile.  But he has a road-weary look about him, sort of like his guitar case.

The van driver is a jolly sort who keeps up a running conversation with his passengers, partly to relieve the boredom of the trip he makes up and down I-70 so many times that every boulder, every snow-crusted pine is etched in his subconscious; but also because he’s genuinely interested in people and he full of the holiday spirit.  He’s got Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops playing “Good King Wenceslas” on the stereo.  And he wants to know who the pilgrims are and where they’re from.  That’s how they get to know that they’re Missourians and Carolinians and college students, trading names and places and bits of personal background here in the warm temporary intimacy of a rubber-tired cocoon.

The last to speak is the Guitar Man, who says he’s a folksinger.  He’s been traveling the East, playing coffee houses and college campuses and small bars, trying to figure out if he can make a living with his music.  He’s soft-spoken and engagingly modest and the rest of the passengers can hear the music in his voice – a traveling troubadour, a man who tells stories in song.  And he has a story of his own.

There’s a lady in Frisco, a little mountain town just off the interstate.  A rather special lady, or at least she used to be.  She and the Guitar Man were more than friends once upon a time not loo long ago, until the music took hold and pulled him out on the road.  The Lady in Frisco begged him not to go, but it was something he just had to do.  The music was strong inside him – stronger, he thought, than love.  So he went, hoping that maybe love would wait.  During these long months while he was out there in the coffee houses and bars, the Guitar Man and the Lady in Frisco haven’t spoken or written, not once.  That was the way she wanted it.

Now, on this snowy night just before Christmas, the Guitar Man is headed back to Frisco, back to the tiny apartment where the Lady lives, carrying his duffel bag and his guitar and his heart.  The Lady in Frisco doesn’t know he’s coming.  And he doesn’t know what he’ll find when he gets there.  Maybe there’s someone else.  Maybe she’s so hurt and disappointed, maybe she thinks he’s so unreliable, she doesn’t want to see him any more.  She may not let him in.  But he’s come all this way to try.

The Guitar Man’s fellow pilgrims are all but struck dumb y his bittersweet story and by the anticipation of what’s to come.  The Guitar Man will be the first passenger to disembark, and all of the others will get to see if the Lady in Frisco turns him away.  If she does, he’ll ride on to the next town and find a place to crash for the night.

The van climbs on, past the meadow where the buffalo herd hunkers against the frigid night, past the rocks where the big-horn sheep scramble by day, up and over the Continental Divide.  The driver and the pilgrims are quiet, lost in their thoughts, considering the Continental Divide of the heart where east meets west and sometimes the altitude and the bitter wind are too much, where even the most resolute traveler has to turn back and seek shelter elsewhere.

On the stereo, the joyous strings of the Boston Pops ring out, “O Come All Ye Faithful.”  But the pilgrims hear another song of another season:  Ramblin’ Man, why don’t you settle down; Boston ain’t your kind of town; There ain’t no gold and there ain’t nobody like me.

And then they’re in Frisco and the van is crunching along a back street, pulling up in front of a row of one-story apartments.  Inside the van, you can hear a pin drop.  The Guitar Man climbs out.  “Good luck,” the driver says.  The Guitar man smiles, closes the door behind him, hoists his duffel bag and guitar case, and climbs the steps.  There’s a Christmas tree in the window, all decorated with colored lights and tinsel.  But for the pilgrims in the van, their faces pressed to the windows, it won’t be Christmas unless…

The Guitar Man knocks.  The door opens, the rectangle of light framing a young woman in a bathrobe.  The folks in the van can’t see her face very well, but they can imagine surprise, shock, maybe even anger.  Or maybe nothing.  That would be the worse.  “Come on lady,” somebody in the van says softly, “let him in.”  But they stand there in the light for a long moment, the Guitar Man and the Lady from Frisco, oblivious to the cold, the rest of their lives hanging in the balance.

Then she steps back from the door, making room for him.  The Guitar Man turns and gives the van folks a thumb’s up and then he enters and closes the door behind him.  In the van, they’re cheering and crying.

The pilgrims move on into the night, now lovely and silent and at peace with itself, all of them touched in some deep place of the soul they had forgotten was there.

The Only Thing That Really Matters

Bob and Paul.JPG

Paulette and I have just spent a week with our 5-month-old grandson Paul, and I came away from the experience reinforced in my belief about what should matter most in our lives.  The short of it is the thing called relationships, and that encompasses a vast territory in this business of being human. 

I had a great time with Paul.  Paulette did most of the feeding/napping stuff, and I was around to lift, tote, fetch, change diapers, and entertain.  Paul loves to be carried, so we spent a lot of time in close verticality.  He’s at the age where his eyesight is fully developed, and he takes a keen interest in everything around him.  He wants to see, touch, feel, and put things in his mouth.  I provide a good bit of the locomotion to help him do all of that.

But it’s not all just toting the baby around.  Paul and I had a regular routine that includes educational and cultural development.  We sing together.  I am partial to “She’ll Be Comin’ Around The Mountain,” and “Froggy Went A’Courtin’.”  Paul chooses to overlook my less-than-sterling singing qualities, and when I launch into one of the songs, his face lights up.  We play the piano together, and again, Paul doesn’t mind that my pianistic dexterity is mostly of the one-finger-at-a-time sort.  Paul plays one fist at a time, a much advanced technique.  I think I can hear some Chopin in there somewhere.

We also practice our Spanish.  Buenos dias, Pablo.  Como esta?  Muy bien, gracias.  Next we will advance to the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, from the original Spanish, of course.

The main thing is that we are simply together.  We are building a relationship that will be a work in progress as long as we are both on the planet together.  We will give to and take from each other in ways large and small.  I will have his back and he will have mine.  Paul will always know that no matter what he does or who he becomes, I will love him unconditionally.  In doing so, I’ll get the same back from him.

I explored the business of relationships in my novel Captain Saturday.  My hero, Will Baggett, is Raleigh’s most popular TV weatherman, pretty much caught up in his minor local celebrity.  But then suddenly and precipitously, Will loses his job, and in taking stock of the wreckage about him, he realizes that it includes his relationships with the people he should cherish most – his wife and nearly-grown son.  The story is how Will, laid low by fickle fate, tries to re-invent himself and re-capture those damaged relationships.  I’ve had a good number of folks say that reading about Will Baggett prompted them to take stock of their own lives and see if there are some things that need mending.  For a storyteller, that’s the ultimate payback. 

I think some of the most important relationships we build are those with people who are younger.  We all have somebody younger, and when we pay attention, invest time and energy in them, and let them know in a thousand ways that they’re important to us and themselves, we help them build good foundations.  In turn, it enriches our own lives.

I believe we naturally think a lot about relationships during the holiday season.  We remember those who are no longer with us, and take stock of our feelings for those who are still here.  Relationships can be tricky and tough, because we human beings are a messy lot and we are prone to get things tangled up when we deal with those we’re supposed to cherish.  But building, strengthening, and maintaining relationships is what life is all about.  We’re all connected, all precious in God’s eyes, and all worthy of acts of love and kindness.

We often hear about the things we can’t take with us – fame, fortune, etc.  I prefer to thing about the things we leave behind, the bonds we have with family, friends, and indeed all of God’s great creation.  That’s the only thing that really matters.

There's No Place Like Roberdel

One of my favorite parts of The Wizard of Oz comes near the end.  Dorothy, the plucky girl with the vivid imagination, has lived through mind-boggling adventures in a fantastical land filled with munchkins and witches, lions and tin men and scarecrows.  But now she wants to go home, to Kansas.  She repeats, over and over, “There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.”  And poof, there she is, back in the place she loves, surrounded by people who love her.

I thought about Dorothy the other day when I visited Roberdel.  The reason I went was because I’m doing some writing about Wingate University in North Carolina and its President, Dr. Jerry McGee, who’s retiring after leading the school for 23 years of growth and transformation.  When I imagine characters for a novel, I need to know their backstory: how they got to be the people they are.  It’s the same for a piece of nonfiction.  I can’t understand Wingate University without knowing Jerry McGee.  And I can’t know him without knowing Roberdel.

It’s a small place on the outskirts of Rockingham, North Carolina, a former textile mill village.  The mill is long gone, along with most of the textile industry that once drove the local economy.  But for the better part of the 20th century, it was a vibrant place – the mill surrounded by modest homes, most of them occupied by millworkers including McGee’s extended family.  It was a close-knit community of hard-working families where adults looked out for the kids, where people never locked their doors because there was no crime, where neighbors cared about neighbors.  Life revolved around the mill, the churches, and the school. 

Young folks who grew up in Roberdel absorbed a set of values that seem to have served them well.  McGee, in a book he wrote about his youth, described the culture of the Roberdel school: “They taught us to be responsible, to respect the feelings and opinions of others and to be productive members of our community.  They made sure we understood that everyone was equal in the eyes of God, no matter where they lived, who their parents were, or what color their skin was, and that we could do anything we wished to do with our talents and our lives, if we were willing to work fairly and diligently.”   That’s pretty basic stuff, a pretty good recipe for a fruitful life, the kind Jerry McGee has lived.

I agree with him that we are marked indelibly – for good or ill -- by the places of our lives, especially at our beginnings.  Young folks who are fortunate enough to grow up in the Roberdels of the world have the advantage of villages that care, that nurture, that teach by example.  They may not always do the right thing, but it won’t be because they didn’t know what the right thing was.  And chances are, they’ll do a lot of things that are right, because they grew up among folks who expected just that.

I share Jerry McGee’s good fortune of having grown up in a good village.  Mine was a small Alabama town populated by the same kind of folks who lived in Roberdel in Jerry McGee’s youth.  We kids knew that people in our village cared for us and thought we were special and showed us by their example how to live good lives.  They let us know in no uncertain terms that they expected good things of us.  That makes a difference.

Roberdel lies along the banks of Hitchcock Creek, and when you leave Roberdel, you cross a bridge that is named for Jerry McGee.  The community is proud of him, and he’s proud of being one of Roberdel’s sons.  He says he’s crossed that bridge many times leaving Roberdel, but his heart is still there.  Good places are like that -- places you never really leave, even when you’re far away.  Dorothy was right.

The Intersection of Art and Commerce

A fellow said to me the other day, “I’ve got a great idea for a book.  How do I get it published?”  Whoa dude, I replied – or words to that effect.  To get a book published, you first have to have a book.  Then, and only then, do you even think about publishing.  That is the point where art meets commerce.

I get a lot of questions about publishing from folks who know I’ve written some stuff and had it published.  My first question is always, “Have you written the book?”  Sometimes, they want me to write the book for them.  Well, I don’t do that.  But I’m happy to share what little wisdom I have about writing, along with lots of encouragement.

The best wisdom I can share is what a graduate school professor gave to me.  He said, “The way you write is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  There are lots of folks with good stories to tell, and many have a facility with words that would allow them to put the story on paper.  But only a few will apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

There are a several tough parts along the way.  The first is simply getting started – sitting down in a quiet place and facing a blank piece of paper that’s waiting for words.  Once you leap that hurdle, the next one is when you read what you’ve just written and say, “Oh, that’s awful!”  Well, maybe it is.  But the remedy is doing it again and making it better.  If you want it to be perfect the first time, you’re doomed.  What you do is get something down, and then re-write.  The getting it down is the toughest part.  The re-writing is where you begin to have fun.

But maybe the hardest part is the absolute requirement for stubborn, patient persistence.  Going to the work every possible day you can, carving out slices of time during which you absolutely refuse to be interrupted or distracted.  A good story, worked on daily, takes on a life of its own, a momentum.  And keeping that momentum is crucial through the long process of making a book.

Only when you’ve done all of that are you ready to think about publishing.  This is the intersection of art and commerce.  A writer is not complete without a reader.  We want as many folks as possible to enjoy and appreciate what we’ve done.  So we go through the tough process of finding a publisher, or publishing ourselves, and then reaching out to the widest possible audience.

The reaching out is hard work, too.  It’s hawking the merchandise, and that means using every possible means to let people know about the work and why they should pay their hard-earned money to obtain it.  Published writers today  know how crucial it is to use social media to get the word out, how important it is to go to places where readers gather, how necessary it is to work tirelessly and persistently in behalf of sales.  Crass commercialism?  You betcha.  Without the commerce part, the art part just lays there.

The good news about publishing is that today, anyone and everyone who produces a work can get published, thanks to the rise of the e-book: Amazon’s Kindle and the like.  Those folks are delighted to have you publish your work on their platforms, and I know from experience that it’s easy to do.  But just because it’s there doesn’t mean anybody will actually buy it and read it.  That’s the writer’s job.

I suppose any successful business is run by people who understand the intersection of art and commerce.  Just because you produce a good product or service doesn’t mean you’ll do well.  You have to do the grubby commercial part too.

We writers are no different.  Stop in the middle of an intersection and you’ll get run over.  You have to keep moving.